The Easter Story from John 20
When I first came back to the city after the storm, I went through a long period when I couldn’t sleep very well. A lot of people had that same trouble. But something of such tragic and monumental proportions had happened that the world as we knew it would never again be the same. As exhausted as I might be at the end of “another day in paradise,” as Juan Quinton likes to say, I would lie in bed with the heartbreaking images miles of aisles of spoiled refrigerators, mountains of debris, the sickening smell of the mold, our stricken steeple.
I can remember one sleepless night wandering through the darkened house, picking up my newly purchased copy of One Dead in the Attic, the book by Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose. As most of you know all too well, the title is from one of the famous inscriptions we found on our doors, the big painted X’s made by the search and rescue teams, with notations in each quadrant indicating when the search was made, which team made it, what they found dead or alive inside. Rose took his title from one grim inscription that read: 1 dead in the attic. His book is a collection of columns he wrote during this terrible time in our city’s history. You might think that something like that would make it harder for me to sleep. But in a strange and solemn way, it comforted me, I guess, to know that there was someone out there who knew and understood what had happened in this place because he had been through it and had the courage to speak out.
Since that time the story of Katrina is a story that has been told, filmed, photographed, published, documented, printed. It has become a tragic chapter in our entire nation’s story, one on which many have already turned the page and moved on. But for anyone who lives here, it is still our story. We are still in it. We are not sure how this will all end. One thing we can be sure of: Katrina has left her mark on us. Or is it a scar? For the rest of our lives who we are will in some way, shape, or form be defined by Katrina.
Defined. It is one of those defining experiences. Like Pearl Harbor, like D-Day, like 9/11, everyone knows where they were, what they were doing, when it happened—because there was such a massive seismic shift in our world, in ourselves. I have often wondered whether Katrina will become such a defining experience for us that we will never really get beyond it.
I have known people like that. I had a friend who was a Viet Nam veteran. He had seen some stuff—loss, death, suffering, tragedy—the kind of stuff that can haunt a soldier all his life. I was with him one day when a helicopter passed over our heads and I could see that just for a moment he was gone: he had flashed back in time. He always wore army fatigues every single day, no matter what the occasion. He was a vocal active advocate for veterans. The subject came up in every conversation. Once he confided in me that the only way he could sleep at night was on the couch in his apartment near a dishwasher while it ran its cycle. Something was soothing about the whoppa whoppa whoppa sound–like the sound of rescue helicopters hovering near. But when the cycle would finish, unless he got up and turned it on again, he could not sleep. Anyone could see that though he had survived the war, a part of him was still buried alive in that jungle. For what he had witnessed in there was so powerfully definitive that, in a very real sense it became who he was. It was his story. A sad story of loss, suffering, despair, anger.
But I will never forget the day he asked to be baptized. He came to my office, and we talked about the meaning of baptism. I told him among many other things that it would give him a new story. That although the story of what he had experienced in Viet Nam would always be a huge defining part of him, that baptism would give him another story, an overarching story, one that would embrace not only Viet Nam, but his birth, his life, his growth, through every change, the ups and downs, the defeats and the victories, even his death, and life beyond death.
That’s what it means to be baptized, to become a Christian: you get a new story. It too is about tragedy, suffering, and death. But moreover it is about something that has the power to transcend, transform, triumph over tragedy, suffering, and death.
It is this story. Mary Magdalene’s story. Jesus, whom she had so dearly loved, had been brutally unjustly executed, his bruised, beaten, bleeding body laid in stone cold tomb. She had gone back to the tomb, the other Gospel writers tell us, to clean and anoint the body, to prepare it properly. Have you ever thought what this story might be like if it stopped right here? If the title of this story was One Dead in the Tomb? If she had prepared the body, sealed the tomb, that’s all she wrote? She might have returned to it every day at first, then less and less as time went on, but part of her still buried alive with him.
But that’s not how it ended. She went there, and the tomb was open and empty. She called John and Peter; they saw the same thing—John saw the linen cloths lying there, folded neatly. They went off to tell the others, but Mary stayed. And there, in that garden, she had such a powerful, life-altering experience of his living presence that she could come to no other conclusion that that HE WAS ALIVE! Jesus was alive!–making it possible for her to be alive again: “I have seen the Lord!” she said. And she told the others what had happened at the tomb and in the garden. “I have seen the Lord!”
This was her story. This was the defining experience that would shape not only her life but the lives of all the disciples, the life of the church, my life, your life. It is why we are here today. This is the story that tells us that there is no end without a no beginning, no death without resurrection, no defeat without a final victory. For there is at work in every moment we live the power of the resurrection rolling back the stone, calling us forth out of the experience of death to life, new life, life victorious over death, life that has the power to rise up and go ON. This is my story. I too have seen the Lord!
I have many chapters in my life: some good, some great, some awesome with wonder and love, some so sad and sorry it would make your heart stop. Katrina is a chapter in my story. It is not over yet. But it is only a chapter. I refuse to let this or any other chapter of my life define who I am, what I do, how I feel, what I believe. No, she is not the author of this book. This is not One Dead in the Attic, not One Dead in the Tomb. Rob Sherer told me that last year on Easter Sunday at the Rogers Chapel on the Tulane Campus somebody hung a banner on the front door with one of those big X’s painted across it and in one of the quadrants there was this inscription: 0 dead in the tomb. That’s Easter: He lives! He has risen. And because he has risen, so can I.
That’s my story: And I’m stickin to it.